Peace for National
Northeastern Herald, 18 October 2002
Viewing political discussions in Sinhala on television,
especially those telecast by private stations, can be a very
satisfying experience. In spite of the accusation that private media
commercialises television and radio broadcasting, private television
and radio channels have fairly open discussions on political issues.
Rupavahini and SLBC, the state-run channels, have been pushed to
emulate the private stations.
There is however very limited Tamil participation in these
programmes. This is evidently due to a) not enough Tamils with
sufficient command and fluency in the Sinhala language able to
engage in public debate and b) Tamils who participate being very
reticent in fear they would be labelled as Tamil racists.
Ponnambalam, as long as he lived, used to take part in these
debates. He had the added advantage of fluency in Sinhala. Another
participant who excels in putting forward the Tamil point of view is
Abu Yusuf, formally of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) and
now a member of TELO.
This however does not mean the Tamil point of view will not be
advocated if not for such figures. It is. And those who are at the
forefront in this exercise are Dr. Wickramabahu Karunaratne and
Vasudeva Nanayakkara and up to a point Dr. Tissa Vithana. And it is
a very pleasant, soul-satisfying experience for a Tamil to watch a
Sinhalese putting forward the Tamil point of view in such forceful
and clear terms.Nanayakkara, Karunaratne and others do not speak in
terms of Tamil/Sinhala categories. They speak about it as part of
the national question. It is important to put on record that neither
of the major left parties of Sri Lanka, the LSSP or the CPSL,
popularised the term ‘national question,’ nor have they presented it
as a concept for debate in the coalition in which they are working.
We are thus compelled to delve into history to find out how a basic
principle of Marxism such as the national question was abandoned.
Marxism, like Christianity, is an ideology whose origin and early
growth was not indigenous. It could have therefore taken a more
objective view of the language and ethnic divide and worked towards
a national consensus on these matters than it actually did.
Developments of the post-Second World War era, especially since the
1950s in the international socialist camp led by the Soviet Union,
resulted in a situation where governments in African and Asian
countries built friendly relations with the Soviet Union though they
were intolerant of communist movements in their own countries.
India, Indonesia and Egypt are good examples.
Meanwhile, communist parties in these newly liberated countries
faced a dilemma as to whether to support or oppose the line taken by
their governments, which was to oppose both Americanism as well as
communism. The general tendency was for those parties to support
governments that were anti-American because they had important roles
to play in the Non-Aligned Movement that looked more towards the
Soviet Union and China, than towards the USA.
Though no immediate problems were apparent, differences had begun
setting in within the left movement. There was a need for local
communist parties to give up their militant opposition to the
so-called socialist parties in government. In Sri Lanka, there was
general dissatisfaction both among Sinhala and Tamil youth because
of this. It gradually began to affect left-inclined trade unions
too. This not only led to left-oriented trade unions disintegrating,
but also for non-Marxist unions affiliated to both the UNP and SLFP
beginning to emerge into prominence.
However, the impact of these undercurrents was more severe on the
youth than it was on the workers. And the first major breakaway from
the traditional left was the JVP. In the case of the Tamil youth,
the manner in which the CP and LSSP identified themselves with the
SLFP in their opposition to the Dudley – Chelvanayakam Pact in the
1960s and their marches chanting anti-Tamil slogans, left deep
impressions. Thus both Sinhala and Tamil youth had sidelined the
mainstream left parties on the national question.
I remember the late Bernard Soysa of the LSSP once commenting in the
company of members of the Social Scientists Association (SSA) that
Marxist academics (who were critical of the volt face of the left
movement on the language issue) were carrying on the genuine Marxist
The JVP became a Sinhala-Marxist organisation, which in the early
days was anti-Indian, but not necessarily anti-Tamil. But over the
years it began acquiring an anti-Tamil stance, which is very clear
now. The Tamil youth movement, though in the beginning stronger in
its Tamil consciousness than in adherence to Marxist principles,
began to set-up small units that were Marxist oriented. They were of
course against traditional left fronts, which were coalitions with
EROS, EPRLF and later NLFT considered themselves basically Marxist.
What is more, even non-Marxist organisations like the LTTE borrowed
concepts like ‘liberation’ and ‘self-determination,’ which were part
of the political lexis of Marxism of the day, as guiding principles
of their struggle. I believe Dr. Anton Balasingham played a vital
role in this matter before he decided to return to Sri Lanka and
work with the Tigers.
The short sighted manner in which successive government addressed
the language issue made it into an ethnic problem, which was
presented as Sinhalese fighting Tamils and vice-versa. In the face
of this, traditional Marxism was virtually dead as means of offering
a political solution. One should however not fail to mention two
Marxist intellectuals Kumari Jayawardene and the late Newton
Gunasinghe who took reasoned stands on the need for solving the
It was in this context that Vasudeva Nanyakkara and Wickramabahu
Karunaratne emerged to voice the reasonableness in the Tamil demand
for a just and fair solution to the problem. It should be added that
Vijaya Dias had also taken a reasoned stand on the matter, though it
is Nanayakkara and Karunaratne who were, and are, more vocal in
presenting their views.
Their concern for peace is not like that of the NGOs or the donor
institutions for whom shouting for peace has become a profession.
The importance of Karunaratne and Nanayakkara lies in their emphasis
that peace is a necessity for national togetherness. This is in
sharp contrast to what other politicians say. For the latter, peace
is essential only because war is unaffordable. It is war-weariness
that motivates them for peace rather than granting rights to
sections of Sri Lanka’s nationals.
If it is realised that a single Sri Lankan state will be viable only
if it is rooted in the inalienable rights of all its citizens, both
as individuals as well as national groups, the future of this
country is not bleak.
The Tamil lobby for peace should take heed of the lonely voices of
Nanayakkara and Karunaratne and recognise them for their worth. At a
time when there is an explicit struggle being waged by the Tamils
for winning their rights as a nationality and as citizens, it is
important that cordial relations are maintained with those
progressive forces that have been advocating this very theme in
times of war.